Earning Your Legend
Over the last few posts, I’ve talked about how I’ve run games where the characters start out relatively awful when they begin play. For one game, it was a deliberate thing, where I allowed the players to pick their skills without any suggestion on my part, thereby skimming past requisite build choices that only made sense to veteran players. For another, I enforced the qualities of their numerically inferior scores, rather than let them make assumptions about how much they knew simply by being part of the larger society. And in my greatest Exalted game, I actually ran the characters through prologues to give them some history before I cruelly tossed them into prison.
Starting characters in a lot of games are awful. In level-based games, it’s a matter of simple progression. Characters start out with no skills, no equipment and no real place in the world. It’s expected that, over the course of years, they will claw their way up the ranks to stand amongst the giants of the setting. Even so, they’re heralded as being some measure better than the madding crowd of normal peasants, as they have that slight advantage of survivability that sets them apart.
Skill-based games are a little stickier, since they can conceivably start out as experts in some field or another, with the obvious drawback of being really awful at a lot of other things. The overall effect is that they average out as being little better than most of their peers. It’s only with the careful application of earned experience points that they start to differentiate themselves into something bigger and better.
With my background in literature and horror gaming, I prefer these starting characters. The worse off a character is when they enter a game, the more interesting it is when they shed that aura of incompetence. These characters are following a logical and satisfying arc, where they have to strive to become something better, tested by the fires of their hardships. Without this progression from ineptitude to competence, there would be little to actually define the character as being something special.
To borrow directly from George Martin, ‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’ Which is replied to with, ‘That is the only time a man can be brave.’ If there’s nothing to test the character and define him, how can he be considered a hero in the setting? What fun is it to play a hero, if he’s always been a hero? Without anything to challenge him, what actually makes him measure up as someone special? The obstacles that a character has to overcome as part of his path towards becoming a legend are the things that define his personal story.
This is not a particularly easy concept to get across to gamers. There is no expectation of failure on the part of most of the people I game with, at least at the outset, and to have characters that need to think and adapt to their various circumstances rather than blithely roll dice is extremely hard to lay hands upon. Some of my group understand that this lies along a continuum of experience, with a payoff at an eventual point, but without the patience to see that arc through to its fruition, it’s just an exercise in frustration. After all, what’s the point of playing a character that can become a massive chunk of snarling claws if I can’t go off and kick some guy’s head in?
When I envision a game, most of the time, I plot out the final confrontations very early on. I try to envision the way in which the game will have to end, so I know what sort of challenges will arise on the way to this final chapter. Once I have a sketch of that, I can wind the action back to the humble beginnings of the story. My personal methods of game creation require that I start the game out in as mundane a way as possible, just to establish a baseline. (I’ve already covered some of this in my post on Establishing the Color of the Rug.) Once that’s in place, I can start laying down the groundwork of the larger plot.
By way of example, there was my Torg game from back in the day. The overall plot of Torg follows that the Earth is being invaded, and the main setting assumes that the characters rise up in the aftermath of the initial invasion. When I sat down to plan the game, I knew this was my end goal, one way or another. The game could continue beyond the revelation of the opening shots of the Possibility Wars, but for the purposes of my planning, this was the confrontation that I was looking to reach.
The set-up for the game was that the characters were FBI Agents. Their Deputy Director happened to be the rare sort of individual that understood what sort of conspiracies were lurking in the shadows, and he specifically took action to undermine and delay as many plans of the invaders as he could. The player characters were the blunt instrument that he applied to the problems he saw, with the net effect of making the game something of an X-Files frame. The characters were sent off to investigate weird phenomena, untangle underlying conspiracies and fight back against the first wave of invaders as they went along. As they progressed, they dealt with Orrorshan relics of evil countenance, Tharkoldu cyberdemons disguised as Men in Black, rogue Aylish wizards fomenting chaos, and insidious agents of Nippon Tech who sought to destabilize the American government.
What grounded this game was that the characters, as they were originally created, were bog-standard. They were the icon of normal, boring bureaucrat, as I made a point to have the players detail out as many mundane aspects of the characters’ lives as they could. There was nothing particularly interesting about the characters, beyond the fact that they were employed by the FBI in the first place. Most of them had narrow foci relating to their particular fields of study, as they all had come to the agency with Masters’ Degrees in relevant areas. When the game started, interesting things happened to these guys; they were not terribly interesting on their own.
Once the game took off properly, they began to take on interesting characteristics as a result of their encounters with the unknown. One character started studying hand to hand weapons, since he decided that the various firearm malfunctions that they had been subject to were enough for him to start looking at a back-up. Another researched occult rituals when he realized that many of the creatures they were facing had been making use of such implements.
The net result was that this crop of regular joes started to become cinematic heroes as the game went on, going from paperwork focused bureaucrats to something a lot closer to pulp action protagonists. Since they didn’t start out as anything truly awesome, the process of transforming into properly amazing characters made the legendary exploits that much more worthy of retelling.